Published Online:

Knocking On Heaven's Door

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Over the course of a year, beginning in the summer of 1993, Jonathan Kozol made regular visits to a neighborhood in the South Bronx known as Mott Haven, one of the nation's poorest. Two-thirds of the local residents are Hispanic, one-third black. Thirty-five percent are children. Drug abuse, AIDS, murder, life-consuming fire are part of everyday life. In his new book, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, Kozol, with sparing eloquence, lets the people themselves--the children, parents, teachers, and pastors--tell their own stories. Here, in an excerpt, he visits a local elementary school, P.S. 65, where only seven of 800 children do not qualify for free lunches. "Five of those seven,'' the principal tells Kozol, "get reduced-price lunches because they are classified as only 'poor,' not destitute.''

"What are these holes in our window?'' asks a 4th grade teacher at P.S. 65 in a rapid drill that, I imagine, few of those who read this will recall from their own days in school.

"Bullet shots!'' the children chant in unison.

"How do police patrol our neighborhood?'' the teacher asks.

"By helicopter!'' say the children.

"What do we do when we hear shooting?''

"Lie down on the floor!''

In the lunchroom, I talk with a serious-looking boy in the 6th grade, named Damian, who tells me he does not live with his parents. I ask him who takes care of him.

"My grandma,'' he replies.

"Where does your mother live?''

"She lives in Harlem.''

"Why don't you live with her?''

"She gave me to my father.''

"Why don't you live with your father then?''

"My father is in prison.''

A teacher has told me that Damian is considered the top student in his class. I ask him if he knows what he would like to do when he grows up.

"X-ray technician,'' he replies without conviction.

After lunch, I ask the children in his 6th grade class to tell me what they hate or fear the most in life.

Several children answer, "Dying.'' One boy says, "The rats that have red eyes.'' A small girl with curly hair and large round plastic glasses says she is most afraid "of growing up,'' but when I ask her why, she says, "I don't know why.'' The only white boy in the class and in the school, an immigrant from Russia, says, "What I hate most is the unfairness on this earth.''

I ask the children to tell me something they consider beautiful.

Virtually every child answers, "Heaven.''

"What,'' I ask, "is heaven like?''

"A peaceful place with only the innocent,'' one child says.

"Where is heaven?''

Rolling her eyes and pointing above her at the ceiling, a child with a ponytail, named Anabelle, replies, "Upstairs.''

"How far upstairs?''

"Oh, very far!'' she answers.

"Where is the other place?''

"Downstairs,'' she replies, pointing with her finger at the floor.

I ask again, "How far downstairs?''

"All the way down!'' she says, like someone giving orders to an elevator operator.

Before I leave the class, I ask the children if they'd speak of something wonderful or beautiful, not in the afterlife but here on earth. Several girls say, "Flowers.'' One

of them says, "My mother,'' and another says, "My baby brother.'' One child says, "Myself.'' Anabelle, one of the smallest children in the 6th grade, answers, "My pet mouse.'' The boy from Russia answers, "Life itself. Being alive is wonderful.''

The affirmation heard in certain of these voices, and the merriment in others, are, however, anything but universal in this school, which serves 800 of the poorest children in the South Bronx--many of whom are also known to be lead-poisoned--and which ranks 627th out of 628 New York City elementary schools in reading scores.

"So many of our children,'' says one teacher, "walk with their fists clenched and with scowls on their faces. I see a boy come in. I say, 'Good morning,' but he walks right by. I think, 'What can we teach this boy today?'

"One boy named Alexander looks down at the floor and mutters when his father's name is mentioned. He seems ashamed of him. There's so much bitterness within his eyes.''

At the same time, the teacher says, despite this bitterness or shame, many of the children also seem to love their fathers. "There was gunfire last week during recess. When it stopped, we saw the man who had been shot. He was facedown across the street, covered with blood. Several of the children said, 'Oh God! It's my daddy! Is it my daddy?' It wasn't anybody's father that I know of, but you can see from this why children you've been meeting speak so frequently of heaven.''

The notion of "trauma'' as an individual event, he and other teachers say, does not really get at what they feel is taking place because these things are happening so often. " 'Traumatization' as an ordinary state of mind is closer to the fact of things for some, though not for all, the children,'' says another teacher. "They lead the life most people only read about. A little one speaks to me, and I have tears in my eyes.''

I ask if she makes referrals to a clinic or a hospital in cases where a child's state of mind particularly alarms her. She sighs and says, "We do. But every place is overbooked. You make the referral. Then you wait for months. . . .

"A 13-year-old boy,'' she says, "came in one day during the winter in a despondent state of mind. I've never come across a child more depressed. He sat here and he said, 'I want to die.' We reached his mother. She took him to Lincoln Hospital. They did a brief assessment, then turned him right around.''

I ask, "What does that mean?''

"It means that they did nothing for him,'' says the principal, who is sitting with us in the teacher's room.

"A week later,'' says the school psychologist, "the mother took him back. This time, he got a blood test, whatever that was for, and was released again. They told the mother she would hear. But she heard nothing.

"Eight weeks after we referred him, he had still received no medication and no treatment. I told the hospital, 'This boy has suicidal ideation. He's in crisis.' But this is the way it is. They say, 'We'll see him in four weeks or so.' Then--nothing.''

I mention Damian, the boy who said he wanted to be an X-ray technician when he grows up, although he had said it with a shrug. I tell the psychologist that I had wondered why, if he's one of the best students, he would not have had in mind at least the possibility that he'd become a doctor.

"Many of the ambitions of the children,'' she replies, "are locked in at a level that suburban kids would scorn. It's as if the very possibilities of life have been scaled back. Boys who are doing well in school will tell me, 'I would like to be a sanitation man.' I have to guard my words and not say anything to indicate my sense of disappointment. In this neighborhood, a sanitation job is something to be longed for.''

At 2 p.m., a terrific, rhythmic sound of clapping fills the gym of P.S. 65, as 18 girls in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade go through a cheerleading routine. A few of the girls are fairly tall and look grown-up. Others, like Anabelle, who spoke of her pet mouse during the class discussion, still look like little kids. Small and skinny, full of pep, her big white T-shirt hanging down over her jeans, she snaps her fingers, stamps her feet, swings her ponytail back and forth, then claps her hands with a live-wire frenzy and a big, bright smile in her eyes. "If all this energy could be stored up somehow,'' a teacher says, "and used in just exactly the right way, I bet these little girls could lick the world.''

The same energy is still there later in the schoolyard as the girls do double Dutch and other jump-rope games.

Grandma, grandma
Sick in bed
Called the doctor
And the doctor said:
Get the rhythm in the hands!
Get the rhythm in the head!

A number of teachers and some parent volunteers are standing by the side to supervise the children as they swing the ropes and chant the rhymes, some of them passed down for six or seven generations from grandmothers to their children and grandchildren.

Shake it to the east!
Shake it to the west!
Shake it to the one
that you love best!

The rhymes, combining mischief, challenge, and flirtation, fill the pleasant air of afternoon with innocence and fun.

I can do the hoochie coochie
I can do the split
Bet you five dollars
You can't do this!

Ten or 12 boys in the schoolyard, attracted by my tape recorder, seem overly eager to tell me of some recent murders they have seen.

"A man over there in front of the church shot another man,'' a 9-year-old announces. "The man he shot was a teenager. I guess he knew him, so he shot him.''

"How many times did he shoot him?''

"Seven times,'' he answers.

"How close were you when this happened?''

"He did it to him right in front of my face,'' the boy replies.

"My friend's mother was killed,'' reports another boy. "She uses cocaine. She overdosed and died. It happened in his house.''

"Where is his house?''

"On St. Ann's Avenue,'' he says.

"His father died of a shot in the heart,'' he adds.

"Where did his father die?''

"On Cypress Avenue.''

There isn't much emotion in their voices. They speak of these events the way that people speak of things they've seen on television. I ask the boys to lift their hands if any of them have asthma. Three of their hands go up.

"Do you have someone in your family who has asthma?''

Half the hands go up.

"What do they do,'' I ask, "when they can't breathe?''

"Go to the hospital, get some shots,'' one boy replies.

A small boy eyes me mysteriously and says in a half-whisper, "I got three quarters in my pocket.'' He squeezes his hand into his pocket and brings out the coins to show me. His mother, he says, gives him a quarter every morning. "When I get another quarter, I will have a dollar.''

"What are you going to do with the dollar?''

"I'm going to buy a hot dog.''

A blaring voice from a police car, which is moving slowly past the school, temporarily drowns out the voices of the children. "We are trying to locate a 4-month-old infant who is missing from her home,'' the magnified voice from the patrol car says. "If you have any information on this child, please telephone the following number. . . .'' The patrol car moves on toward a modern-looking homeless shelter, one of two shelters in the blocks behind the school.

As class lets out at 3 p.m., the sidewalk in front of P.S. 65 is filled with mothers and grandmothers waiting to escort their children and grandchildren to their homes. Some of the older children slip loose from the other kids and enter a bodega on the corner of the street. A toddler with a canvas backpack that looks almost as big as he is says goodbye to another toddler, hugs her awkwardly, then reaches up to take his grandmother's hand.

As long as I have visited in inner-city schools like P.S. 65, I have always found the sight of children coming out at 3 o'clock, their mothers and grandmothers waiting to collect them, tremendously exciting and upsetting at the same time. The sheer numbers of the children, the determination of the older women to protect them, and the knowledge that they cannot really be protected in the face of all the dangers that surround them fill a visitor with foreboding. You wish that while they were in class, someone with magic powers had appeared and waved a wand and turned the world outside the building into fields of flowers.

Sympathy for these children, though movingly expressed in some news stories, is not of the magnitude one would expect within a richly cultivated city. One of the most popular radio talk-show hosts in New York City, who refers to African blacks as "savages'' and advocates eugenics in America, recently wondered aloud, during a monologue about black people, "how they multiply like that,'' then answered, "It's like maggots on a hot day. You look one minute and there are so many there. . . . You look again and wow! they've tripled.'' These are not unusual statements these days on the radio in New York City. It often seems as if the hatred for black women in particular is so intense that there is no longer any sense of prohibition about venting the same hatred on their children.

"I didn't breed them. I don't want to feed them,'' says a woman cited in the The New York Times. The woman, who lives in Arizona, is speaking of Mexican children who enter border towns illegally; but the sentiment is not unlike the one you hear repeatedly in New York City from a number of the talk-show hosts whose scorn for children of black and Hispanic people, frequently conveyed with searing humor, seems to stir the deepest, most responsive chords among white listeners.

The sparklingly happy little girl, named Anabelle, who had explained to me where heaven is ("upstairs''), sees me opposite the school and walks right up and tells me, "Hi! Do you remember me?''

I ask her where she lives, and when she says, "Two blocks away,'' I ask if I can walk her home, so we can talk a little more. As we walk, I ask her to tell me more about her images of heaven. "Tell me everything. Who gets to go there? What's it like? What happens to the ones who don't get in?''

She seems more than willing to comply.

"People who are good go up to heaven,'' she begins in a singsong voice, as if this part is obvious. "People who are bad go down to where the Devil lives. They have to wear red suits, which look like red pajamas. People who go to heaven wear a nightgown, white, because they're angels. All little children who die when they are young will go to heaven. Dogs and kittens go to animal heaven. But, if you loved an animal who died, you can go and visit with each other on the weekend. In heaven you don't pay for things with money. You pay for things you need with smiles.''

I ask her, "Can a pet mouse go to heaven too?''

"I don't know about a mouse,'' she answers. "He's quite small.''

She tells me that she also has a dog and cat and parakeet. "If I had my own house, I would have nine animals. Cats in one room. Dogs in another. I would have a room for every animal, and I'd put pillows for them on the floor. My mother will not let me do it.''

I tell her I'm not surprised by that.

"If I had my own house I would do it.''

I ask the names and ages of her animals. When she gets to her parakeet, she says, "He's 59.''

"How old are you?''

"I'm only 11,'' she replies.

She adds that she had another bird before she got the parakeet but that he died the year before. "When he died,'' she says, cupping her hands and looking into them, "he died in my hands.'' She smiles, however, as she says this, and does not look sad.

I ask if she says prayers at night.

"I do.''

"Who do you pray for?''

"I pray for my dog and cat.''

"What do you pray?''

"I pray for them to stay right next to me all night and wake me up if I have a bad dream.''

"Do you have many bad dreams?''

"Many!'' she replies.

"How do you know when you are in heaven?'' I ask her, finally.

"You'll see an archway made of gold,'' she answers.

I meet Anabelle again a few days later. She has two quarters in her hand to buy a pineapple coquito. I go to the corner with her, and I get a pineapple coquito too. It's a beautiful day. She stands with me eating her icie and chatters about nothing of importance for a while.

Being treated as a friend this way by children always feels like a great privilege. It seems like something you just wouldn't have the right to hope for. Why should this child trust a stranger who can come into her world at will and leave it any time he likes? Why should she be so generous and open? In the drabness of the neighborhood, her friendliness seems like the sunshine that has not been seen in New York City during many months of snow and storm and meanness.

Anabelle's images of heaven give me a delightful feeling that I rarely have in New York City. I speak of these kinds of things as often as I can, and of the feelings children voice for animals they love, because I think they show us something very different from the customary picture we are given of a generation of young thugs and future whores. There is a golden moment here that our society has chosen not to seize. We have not nourished this part of the hearts of children, not in New York, not really anywhere.

Anabelle is, by any odds, one of the most joyful children I have ever met. There is seldom any hint of sorrow in her voice. Only once, when she told me of children at her school whose mothers or fathers or older sisters had died recently of AIDS, did she become quite solemn. I asked her how the children who are orphaned seem to handle what they have gone through.

"They cry. They suffer. People die. They pray,'' she answered softly.

A block from P.S. 65, I run into Cliffie, the little boy who was concerned about the "burning bodies'' in the medical waste incinerator built on Locust Avenue. He's sitting on a high brick wall as I come up the street.

As I approach, he shows no particular surprise at seeing me again after eight months but asks me, "Do you see that wall back there, behind this yard?''

I say I do.

"This man I saw, he buried another man back there. The man he buried was alive.''

"Is that true?''

"The man was alive! And then, when I went back in there, I saw a dead dog and I saw this little, little bottle with a purple top. The man was moving. I saw his fingers sticking out. There was a crucifix, and it was moving too.''

I ask him, "Did you try to dig him out?''

"No!'' he says. "It was too gross! I put more dirt on top of him so he would not get out. I asked him, 'Are you still alive?' But he said no.''

He says this in a cheerful voice, adding, "People pee in there and bring their dogs to doodle on his grave.''

"I think you're making this up,'' I say.

He doesn't contest my statement but slips down adeptly from the wall and reaches up and takes my hand and walks with me in the direction I was heading.

"Long ago,'' his mother tells me later, "one of the hospitals used to use that plot of land to bury people who had nobody to claim their bodies. There used to be markers on the graves, but they've been gone for years.'' She wonders if he may have heard this story and inflated it into his fable of the moving hand.

If it is true that children often make up fables to explain the things that trouble them or things they fear, then there is certainly sufficient reason for the many legends that some of the children have created in Mott Haven. Month after month, they witness shootings and police raids, hear of bodies found in trash chutes, other bodies found in elevator shafts, and always, and predictably, they see the consequences of life-taking fires.

The fires sometimes come so close together that the names and ages of the victims soon dissolve into a vague scenario of sadness that can seem uncomfortably abstract. "FIERY TOMB FOR TWO BRONX KIDS,'' reads a headline in the Daily News. "NO ESCAPE,'' reads a second headline. "TRAPPED TOT KILLED IN APARTMENT BLAZE,'' reads a headline one day later. "APARTMENT FIRE KILLS BRONX BOY,'' reads a headline on the next day. "BRONX APARTMENT BLAZE KILLS MOM AND SON,'' reads a fourth headline for another fire in Mott Haven.

The last of these fires, in which a mother and her child died together, took place in a building I have often passed in walking from the train to St. Ann's Church. The building is across an airshaft from another building where the child's uncle and grandmother lived. The grandmother and uncle, awakened by the fire, watched the flames consume the mother and the boy. The mother was last seen standing with the child in her third-floor window, screaming, "Mami! Mami! I can't get out!''

"The fire got bigger,'' says the uncle of the boy. Then "they became quiet,'' and then "we couldn't see them anymore.'' A photograph taken while the fire blazed shows a thin Hispanic man standing in the street outside the building, cradling a beagle puppy in his arms and looking upward with dark, shadowed eyes.

The boy who died, a 10-year-old, was, like his mother, believed to be somewhat retarded. A woman who works in a hardware store one block from where he lived tells me he used to come into her store to say hello. "He had a round face, like a Mexican boy,'' she says. "He'd pick up a key chain or some other little thing that didn't cost a lot, and he might ask me, 'Can I have it?' I would tell him, 'Take it!' His mother watched him like a hawk. She'd stand outside the door and wait 'til he came out.

"On the day before the fire, he came in and handed me a dollar bill. He asked me, 'Would you change it for five dollars?' I told him, 'I can't do that, Papi!' He looked up at me as if he was confused. 'Why can't you do it?' I explained, 'One dollar and five dollars aren't the same.' He gave me a look that made me laugh, as if he thought that I was fooling him. I asked him, 'Papi, what do you need five dollars for?' He said he wanted to buy a baseball at the store across the street.

"The store got crowded then. I couldn't talk. He gave me another look and went back out the door. Later, I learned that he went up the line of all the other stores and asked them all the same thing: Would they change one dollar for five dollars? That's when I knew that there was something wrong. Two days later, when I learned that he was dead, I wished that I had gone and bought the baseball for him. I wish that I could go and buy him 20 baseballs. A baseball's not a big thing for a boy who has so little.''

"The boy who burned to death,'' a 3rd grade teacher at P.S. 65 recalls, "was sitting right there, right in that chair, the afternoon before he died.''

I ask if it's true that the boy and his mother were retarded.

"No,'' she says. "That was the 138th Street fire. This is the boy who died on 140th Street. This boy was a little one. That boy there was older.''

In order to keep these different children clear in my own mind, I finally had to make a map of the South Bronx and put it on the wall over my desk, placing a marker on each block in which a child died, using one symbol for death by fire, one for death by accident, and one for death by gunshot.

"This little boy was in a special class because he had a learning disability,'' the teacher says. "His regular teacher had to go to a meeting after lunch that afternoon, so I was asked to keep him here until the end of school.

"One of the things that makes me sad is that I didn't spend as much time with him as I would have liked. It was one of those hectic afternoons. I never had a chance to stop and just sit down with him and chat. The only thing that I recall is that this boy right here''--she gestures at a fat boy sitting near the door--"kept teasing him, and I finally had to interfere.

"One of the other boys, a sensitive child named Domingo, had befriended him. He made a date to visit him and play with him that afternoon. But Domingo had to stay late for some reason. By the time he got there to the house, he saw the child's body carried out.''

"How old was this boy?'' I ask.

"Eight years old,'' the teacher says.

"Was he the only victim?''

"No,'' she says. "His mother's in a coma at Jacobi Hospital. Another child, a 5-year-old, is dead. Two of the other children are in critical care.'' She then lifts one hand over her face and starts to cry.

Leaving the school, I walk three blocks to see the apartment building where this child died. A garbage bag is billowing from one of the upper windows, charred and open. It isn't apparent if the family has moved out. With the mother and two children in the hospital, however, that does not seem likely.

A few doors away, my attention is arrested by one of the most unusual memorials that I have seen in the South Bronx. In bright white paint against a soft beige background is a painting of a large and friendly looking dog, his tail erect, his ears alert for danger. Above, in yellow letters, I read "MOONDOG,'' which appears to be the nickname of the person who has died. "Gone is the face. . . . Silent is the voice. . . . In our hearts we'll remember,'' reads the epitaph.

As I am standing on the sidewalk copying these words, a plump Hispanic woman rises from the stoop nearby and comes up to my side.

"Is this where he died?'' I ask.

"Yes,'' she answers. "He was shot right there, inside the door.''

"Why was he killed?''

"He was protecting a woman who was pregnant.''

"Did the woman live?''

"The woman lived. She's fine.''

"Did the baby live?''

"The baby's doing fine.''

"How old was the man who died?''

"He was almost 21,'' she replies.

I ask her how he got his nickname.

"He loved dogs. He used to bring them home.'' Her voice is jovial and pleasant.

"Did you know him well?''

"He was my son,'' she says.

Nearby, in the afternoon sun, dozens of children are playing in a playground flecked with broken glass. Puerto Rican music with a pounding salsa rhythm fills the air. In the distance is the jingling music from an ice cream truck, parked at the corner of Brook Avenue. Under a basketball hoop without a net, a number of teenage boys are warming up before a game.

At 5 p.m., I stand at the corner of East 139th Street and St. Ann's Avenue. Tall iron bars have been installed around the space where Children's Park once stood. There is no one enjoying the space inside the bars, which will remain an antiseptic fortress for a year to come, but it is, for now at least, defensible against drug dealers. At some of the local bodegas, store owners are installing stronger, more protective barriers to fend off bullets; bulletproof vests are also becoming part of their work uniforms. So the bodegas soon will be a little more defensible as well.

All the strategies and agencies and institutions needed to contain, control, and normalize a social plague--some of them severe, others exploitative, and some benign--are, it seems, being assembled: defensible stores, defensible parks, defensible entrances to housing projects, defensible schools where weapons-detectors are installed at the front doors and guards are posted, "drug-free zones'' in front of the schools, "safety corridors'' between the schools and nearby subway stations, "grieving rooms'' in some of the schools where students have a place to mourn the friends who do not make it safely through the "safety corridors,'' a large and crowded criminal court and the enormous new court complex now under construction, an old reform school (Spofford) and the new, much larger juvenile prison being built on St. Ann's Avenue, an adult prison, a prison barge, a projected kitchen to prepackage prison meals, a projected high school to train kids to work in prisons and in other crime-related areas, the two symmetrical prostitute strolls, one to the east, one to the west, and counselling and condom distribution to protect the prostitutes from spreading or contracting AIDS, services for grown-ups who already have contracted AIDS, services for children who have AIDS, services for children who have seen their mothers die of AIDS, services for men and women coming out of prison, services for children of the men and women who are still in prison, a welfare office to determine who is eligible for checks and check-cashing stores where residents can cash the checks, food stamp distribution and bodegas that accept the stamps at discount to enable mothers to buy cigarettes or diapers, 13 shelters, 12 soup kitchens, 11 free food pantries, perhaps someday an "empowerment zone,'' or "enterprise zone,'' or some other kind of business zone to generate some jobs for a small fraction of the people who reside here: all the pieces of the perfectible ghetto, the modernized and sometimes even well-served urban lazaretto, with civic-minded CEOs who come up from Manhattan maybe once a week to serve as mentors or "role models'' to the children in the schools while some of their spouses organize benefit balls to pay for dinners in the shelters.

All these strategies and services are needed--all these and hundreds more--if our society intends to keep on placing those it sees as unclean in the unclean places. "In reality, it is a form of quarantine,'' says Ana Oliveira, who directs an agency that serves ex-prison inmates who have AIDS, "not just of people who have AIDS but of people who have everything we fear, sickness, color, destitution--but it has been carried out in ways that seem compatible with humane principles.

"We don't have 'pass cards' in New York. Black women who have AIDS don't have to clip a photo ID to their dress. You don't need a permit to cross over at the magic line of 96th Street. We just tell you the apartment that's available is in Mott Haven, or East Tremont, or Hunts Point. 'That's where we can serve you best. Here's a referral number. Call this agency. They'll help you to get settled. . . .' That's what I mean by 'humane principles.' For those who work within these agencies, as I do, it appears benevolent. And, of course, once you accept the preconditions, all these things are absolutely critical.''

One of the humane principles of which she speaks is present, it appears, here at the former site of Children's Park. The city has apparently tried hard to make this into a "good'' corner. By smashing the benches and the shelter where drug needles once were given out, and flushing out the last remaining symbols of a local drug lord, it has created something clean and modern-looking, metal, geometric, which will someday be transformed into a pleasant place for children. The part of the drug trade that once flourished here has moved both up and down the street, a number of blocks in each direction. The needle exchange is now in a new location, just four doors from P.S. 65.

A few of the people who once frequented the park, however, are standing on the sidewalk looking through the bars. A woman I have seen here several times and who, I am told, is HIV-infected holds a pack of Winstons in one hand, a single cigarette in the other. In a voice that is a bit peremptory and gruff, she asks me for a match.

Lighting the match and holding it for her as she cups her hands, I ask her something that, I realize, even as I say it, must strike her as somewhat strange. "What do you call this place?''

She looks perplexed. "What do I call what place?'' she asks.

"This place here--what do you call it?''

"This place here?'' she shrugs. "This here is the ghetto.''

When she sees me taking out my pen, she says it louder, "GHETTO,'' and then spells it.

I ask, "Why do you live here?''

She looks around her at the street and shrugs again. "This is where poor peoples lives,'' she says. "Where else you think poor peoples goin' to be? You a professor? You wants to meet poor peoples, you come to the ghetto.''

She seems frustrated by my question, no doubt with good reason. She walks away, repeating my words in a sarcastic voice and heads for St. Benedict the Moor, a residence for people in drug treatment, with a soup kitchen on its ground floor, which is just next door.

After she leaves, I leave the corner also and walk to St. Ann's, where vespers have begun. The pastor's clear and calming voice fills the chapel of the church, in which six people from the neighborhood have come to pray. It isn't my religion, but it lends a sense of blessed peace and sanity to my evening.

Jonathan Kozol is the author of many books, including Savage Inequalities and Rachel and Her Children. His first book, Death at an Early Age, won the National Book Award. This article is from Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, to be published in October by Crown. Copyright 1995 by Jonathan Kozol.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories